By Mark Athitakis
Old newspaper habits die hard. Across the country, papers still retain a local news columnist – Mitch Albom in Detroit or E.J. Montini in Phoenix – whose work is identified with an aging headshot and slightly zippier headlines than the rest of the A section. Much of this person’s job involves delivering manicured outrage about current events. This would seem to be an outmoded gig, now that anybody with an Internet connection can do much the same thing. Yet still he (and it’s almost always “he”) crows about all the outraged comments he received for his last riff on the latest outrage, as if you couldn’t receive a bouquet of contempt to call your very own in an instant on Twitter.
So what do we need a newspaper columnist for?
Though not quite intentionally, the Daily Beast recently demonstrated how Chicago columnist Mike Royko satisfyingly answered that question – and why so many of his successors haven’t. Like many online publications, the Daily Beast is investing in magazine-length articles and essays as a way to keep readers on the sites for longer than a nanosecond. (The rubric for such articles, “longform,” contains in its very name an acknowledgment of the ADDish online culture in which it exists.) The Daily Beast’s variation is called “The Stacks,” which, according to an editor’s note, is designed to spotlight “expansive non-fiction writing.” It kicked things off last month with a republished 1985 GQ feature on Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko, who, funnily enough, wrote work that was designed to be read in the space of two sips of morning coffee – three, tops.
[blocktext align=”left”]I’m struck by the romantic and accepting tone in his work[/blocktext]Royko, who died in 1997 after more than three decades writing a column for Chicago’s Daily News, Sun-Times, and Tribune, built his reputation on exposing the city’s institutional and political flaws – his 1971 book Boss, about longtime mayor Richard J. Daley, is as powerful and clear-eyed a description of the mechanics of political horse-trading as you’ll ever read. But while Royko took on the powerful, he didn’t take them down – in the GQ article he says that what he does with politicians is “zap” them. Daley remained safely in power until his death in 1976. Nor did Royko do much more than ding the exterior of machine-run local politicians (or national ones, after he became a nationally syndicated figure in the 80s). Royko understood that his job wasn’t so much to expose flaws as remind people of them; reading through his old columns, I’m struck by the romantic and accepting tone in his work, balancing pugnacity with a forgiving posture. He wrote as if his readers had an angle they were working too, and it’s hard to cry for righteousness when your robe is stained a little as well.
This is a particularly Chicagoan attitude, I think, and it has a lot to do with the city’s relationship with clout – which we’ll get to shortly. The GQ piece that the Daily Beast republished, written by John Schulian, is curious in that it depicts Royko less as a journalist than as a celebrity not much different than a captain of industry or a slightly fading movie star: The story opens with Royko talking up a fan at a bar before things go sour after, the story implies, the columnist flirts with the stranger’s wife. Read the whole piece and you’ll get a sense of him being a popular writer, a privileged writer (“the Tribune props him up like a Ming vase”) but scant evidence of what made him a good one. He’d read Victor Hugo and other newsmen hadn’t, but what of it? For much of the article, he’s telling tyros to piss off, the times he’s had too many drinks, how he misses his wife.
But that’s exactly it. In a postscript to the republished article, Schulian writes: “What surprised me when I re-read the story recently – besides how arcane the idea of star newspaper columnists has become in this age of blogs and Tweets – was his apparent lack of concern about showing his abundant rough edges.” Perhaps the sentence-making aspect of being a columnist wasn’t sexy enough for a GQ profile. But I tend to think that Royko was so willing to display those rough edges because what he was willing to acknowledge, more than most columnists then and now, is that his readers had a lot of rough edges too.
What do we need a newspaper columnist for? To forgive us our sins. And a Chicagoan like Royko understood that as a part of his job in a way few others ever have.
Two years after the GQ article, the Tribune aired a TV ad promoting Royko’s column, which by then was syndicated nationwide in as many as 600 papers. In the ad, the columnist’s sitting at the bar of the Billy Goat Tavern, a restaurant that’s less than five minutes away on foot from the Tribune offices, located in permanent shadow in an underpass beneath Michigan Avenue. We see Royko working on a column, in longhand, in pencil, on legal paper.
“What’chyou writing, Mike?” the man to his right asks.
“A thing about City Hall,” he replies.
Royko silently absorbs a back-and-forth about whether somebody’s a crook or not. Then the man on his right, reading over the columnist’s shoulder, has another question: “Mike, should that be a full stop? What you’ve got there are related thoughts.”
“I’d make it a dash,” says the man to his left.
The man on the right is unpersuaded. “Semi-colon!”
A less-filling-tastes-great battle ensues – Dash! Semicolon! – until the bartender weighs in with all the weight of a neighborhood wardheeler. Semi-colon.
“Semi-colon it is,” Royko says.
Chicago’s universe of old-school bars spends little time squabbling over semicolons and dashes, but the ad flattered about 15 aspects of Chicago’s self-regard. Here was a place where the journalist was literally on the same level as his audience – in this case underground, not just street-level but below it. The smart locals who really knew what the shot was in City Hall could not only help inform a reporter’s column – sorry, a “thing” – but advise him on how to write it. “Run with it, Mike – it’s gonna be great,” a man tells the columnist as he prepares his exit. Run with it – in this world, Grabowski No. 2 working on his third Old Style is as empowered as any desk editor.
Few writers were better than Royko at capturing this scruffiness, at making the reader feel like his wisdom about the city was everybody’s. Among his best-loved columns is a 1967 scene piece describing the unveiling of the giant Picasso statue downtown. In describing the attendees’ confusion over the sculpture’s sphinxlike abstraction, Royko discovered a metaphor for the city’s patronage culture, where everybody in power is using somebody, to the city’s resignation and bafflement: “Picasso has never been here, they say,” he wrote. “You’d think he’s been riding the L all his life.”
This rhetorical strategy didn’t change even when the stakes were higher. Royko’s portrayal of Chicago in Boss was one where the little guy got knocked around a lot – and was willing to do some knocking around himself. It’s how he punctuated his superb sketch of the city’s ethnic enclaves: “You could always tell, even with your eyes closed, which state you were in by the odors of the food stores and the open kitchen windows, the sound of the foreign or familiar language, and by whether a stranger hit you in the head with a rock.
Royko’s Chicago was a casually violent place, not in terms of street shootings but in terms of authority projecting power. He often clinched paragraphs with billy clubs the way wide receivers spike footballs in the end zone. He described how the well-dressed got ahead thus: “If you wore a suit, a tie, and were clean shaven, the cop had to be careful about how he treated you, because he didn’t know but what you were a friend of an alderman, in which case you could take his billy club and beat him without a whimper.”
Describing the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention, he wrote: “A long-haired man who had left the rally early to browse in a nearby bookstore came out of the store without knowing what was happening. He was struck on the head with a club.”
A 1995 column got to the heart of Royko’s interest in the subject. Though ostensibly about LAPD reprobate Mark Fuhrman, then in the spotlight during the OJ trial, the column is more truly about brutality as a way of life in the city. It has an opening worthy of a classic noir: “As a very young crime reporter hanging around police stations, I was once invited by two detectives to help them beat a confession out of a professional car thief.” The cops told Royko that they’d placed a phone book on the suspect’s head and then whacked it with a billy club. Might Royko like to take a swing?
“I declined,” Royko writes, “since I didn’t know if it was ethical for a journalist to help pound a suspect’s head.” This waffling on the subject – I didn’t know if it was ethical – comes off as a joke, a bit of irony. But what ensues takes the matter seriously. The rest of the column riffs on how journalists taking a hard line on police brutality did little good – it distanced the press from the police, he argues, which provided cover for Fuhrman and his ilk. As a reader, you wind up half-rooting for the notion of Royko taking a swing if it meant a better-informed populace. Wouldn’t you?
Cops in New York and LA and Boston carried billy clubs too, and columnists in those cities wrote about them too. But Royko understood that not only was the billy club a crucial part of how the city ran, but that in a certain way the typical Chicago citizen admired its less-than-aboveboard brand of justice. (A more realistic old-school bar conversation wouldn’t be about semicolons but about who got clubbed and how one might avoid being clubbed yourself.) In that regard, he set the template for the world-wise and ground-level writing that’s defined the city columnist’s art. No flourishes about the city like Herb Caen or Jimmy Breslin, no fist pounding for change like an alt-weekly scribe. But a sense that the world wasn’t changing much in the fundamental ways of who got power, who got favors, and how you were screwed by that or sometimes beneficiary of it. Some drunken banter displayed in GQ was nothing compared to that.
[blocktext align=”left”]…his beat wasn’t “the city” so much as a uniquely Chicago thing: clout.[/blocktext] What made Royko a uniquely Midwestern columnist was his understanding that his beat wasn’t “the city” so much as a uniquely Chicago thing: clout. He defined it in 1973 as “political influence, as exercised through patronage, fixing, money, favors, and other traditional City Hall methods.” This is the sort of thing columnists are supposed to rage against, but as with the billy club, Royko tried to meet clout halfway. When U.S. Representative Dan Rostenkowski was indicted on corruption charges in 1996, Royko proclaimed it “tragic”: Rostenkowski was a fixer, sure, but on constituents’ behalf as well as his. “Nobody should be taking pleasure from Rostenkowski misfortune,” he wrote. “Not unless you have never, ever, broken even a minor law and gotten away with it, fudged a bit on your taxes or violated any of the Ten Commandments.” A city’s collective back straightened that morning, reading that sentence.
That doesn’t mean Royko wasn’t sometimes tin-earned. One of Royko’s best-loved inventions was Slats Grobnik, an old-school Pole with a deep repository of common sense wisdom and boisterous family recollections. Slats felt like a flesh-and-blood human; in F. Richard Ciccone’s 2001 biography Royko: A Life in Print, Slats is listed in the index by his last name, like a real person. Slats didn’t always serve Royko well, though – he often walked a fine line between being old-school and retrograde, especially when it came to race. When Magic Johnson announced he was HIV positive in 1991, lunkheaded Slats was unimpressed: “Besides being a great basketball player, what did he do? He was out there hopping in the sack with one bimbo after another.” Royko delivered similarly feeble defenses of Al Campanis and Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder in his own voice, but he wasn’t much reprimanded for them; he knew he had a fan base that thought much the same way. Even Royko’s much-admired column about Jackie Robinson, where a black man buys a Robinson foul ball that Royko caught as a child at Wrigley Field, describes racial equality as valuable largely because it had monetary value: “When I left the ball park, with that much money in my pocket, I was sure that Jackie Robinson wasn’t bad for the game.” Again, Royko was being ironic, but also wasn’t. Whatever gets you right on race works, sure, but Chicago is a transactional town.
Even so, people wanted Royko on their team. In 1975, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee actively courted Royko, writing: “If you stick to your game plan, writing irreverently about the people in this town who are falsely revered, or who falsely revere themselves, you will be working a new vein. No one’s working it now.” That may still be the case; indeed, the Post’s Dana Milbank may be the only columnist with a national profile whose main strategy is allowing politicians to hang themselves with their own words just as Royko did. But Royko’s persona didn’t just involve sticking it to politicians – it was letting the reader recognize how much a part of the game they were. Which is an odd kind of civic pride, but civic pride it was all the same.
And when Royko thought about his competition around the country, he didn’t stray far from home. “I don’t know who the best is,” Royko told GQ. “Maybe some guy in Peoria.”
Mark Athitakis has written on books for many publications. He lives in Phoenix but grew up in Chicago.
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